By Simon Doubleday, Hofstra University
The Black Death allows us to understand how societies responded to an existential threat, organized themselves, limited destabilization, and recovered—sometimes to an astonishing degree. The response to the disease was not a descent into absolute despair, economic depression, or cultural morbidity. Instead, what stands out most is the resilience of this culture.
Spread of the Black Death
Research shows that the Black Death was greater in magnitude than we normally imagine, leading to the death of at least 40%-60% of the population in some areas. Looking at archaeological evidence, as well as written records, we know that it spread across far more of the world than we have previously believed, including much of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
This global epidemic had an earlier origin than historians have usually stated: we now think that it dates back to the 13th century. Outbreaks were frequent, and remarkably, they would continue in some parts of the world at least as late as the 19th century.
Medieval Europe was already deeply enmeshed in global patterns of trade and exchange with North Africa and the continent of Asia. These networks laid Europe open to pandemic disease, yet they also facilitated its economic and cultural recovery. The road to recovery was, of course, rocky. Wealth was spread very unevenly.
In the beginning of October 1347, terror first reached the Sicilian port city of Messina. According to one chronicler, a strange new disease had been carried to Sicily on galleys from Genoa, and it was extremely contagious: if anyone even spoke with one of the sailors, we’re told, they were soon infected with the deadly illness. They would develop a boil on their thigh or their arm. They would cough up blood, and after three days of vomiting, they would die.
What exactly was this disease? In a scientific sense, the answer remained something of a mystery for more than 500 years. It was a young French doctor named Alexandre Yersin, who, in 1894, identified the bacillus which causes plague: it came to be known as Yersinia pestis.
Scientific research has established beyond doubt that it was Yersinia pestis which was responsible for the plague. Cutting-edge scientific techniques have been decisive here. Bio-archaeologists have been able to use skeletal teeth to extract DNA, while geneticists have reconstructed the evolutionary history of the bacterium.
This is a transcript from the video series After the Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Transmittal of Plague
We know that the disease is transmitted in at least three modes—bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. The newest work suggests that we need to add a fourth mode: gastrointestinal plague. In this form, plague is contracted by consuming infected meat.
Medieval people, of course, did not share our modern scientific principles. But we should be careful not to underestimate their intelligence, or their powers of observation. Many 14th century people knew that the plague was contagious and accepted that it was airborne, and many authorities imposed rational public health measures in light of this understanding.
The chronicler’s account from 1347 which we just heard is a faithful description of pneumonic plague.
In this pneumonic form, Yersinia pestis is passed directly from human to human through droplets of exhaled air. The coughing up of blood is also a characteristic symptom of pneumonic plague. Even the chronicler’s reference to the dangers of speech—which in the past might have been dismissed as a laughable, ignorant, ‘medieval’ view—may strike us differently in light of our experience with modern airborne coronavirus.
Resilience of the Society
When we look at responses to the first waves of disease that struck Europe in the years between 1347 and 1351, and again in the late 14th century, what stands out most is the resilience of this culture.
The term resilience here means a feature of collective psychology: the ability of ordinary people to find meaning and direction in the face of crisis, perhaps through the quest for spiritual salvation in the next world, or for freedom and justice in this world. Both kinds of quest were prominent in the late 14th century.
Secondly, we can find resilience in literary and artistic production. All the way from the Decameron written by Giovanni Boccaccio (written in Florence immediately after the plague had struck) to Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ (written in the last decade of the century), the two generations after the plague would see some of the most remarkable literature of the Middle Ages, and a dazzling array of painting as well.
The economic resilience of this society also deserves closer attention. On the eve of the Black Death, the European economy had already been under increasing pressure—in some areas, there was overpopulation, famine, and malnutrition. The plague shook this system to its roots, and undoubtedly many people in medieval Europe would have suffered terrible economic insecurity in the wake of the plague. Yet in the longer term, there are surprising signs of vitality—and in some areas, a growing capitalist economy brought new wealth and better living standards.
Common Questions about Black Death and Medieval People
Alexandre Yersin was a young French doctor who, in 1894, identified the bacillus which causes plague: it came to be known as Yersinia pestis.
The disease is transmitted in at least three modes—bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. The newest work suggests that we need to add a fourth mode: gastrointestinal plague. In this form, plague is contracted by consuming infected meat.
In the pneumonic form, Yersinia pestis is passed directly from human to human through droplets of exhaled air.